After 2-year break, seiners hopeful Sitka herring fishery will continue into future

Justin Peeler and Matt Kinney stand aboard Peeler’s boat the F/V Defiant in late March, several days before the Sitka Sound Sac Roe Herring Fishery opened. (KCAW/Rose)

The Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery opened in late March after a two-year hiatus. Less than half the fleet is fishing this spring, but the seiners who have stuck around have hauled in catches every day over the last week and a half.

KCAW spoke with two commercial fishermen shortly before the fishery opened about the importance of herring to their businesses and lives.

Justin Peeler is standing on the deck of his boat, the F/V Defiant, moored in Eliason Harbor. He’s explaining how the rigging works and why exactly they call it “purse seining.”

“So on our boom is the power block,” he points upwards toward the rigging. “It pulls the net evenly. We try to pull it in evenly and, like I said, shrink that bowl up or shrink that purse up, until we’re just to the fish and then we bring them on board.”

Below the rigging is a massive black net that will make up the purse when Peeler and his crew of four haul in a set of herring. Piled high, it’s taller than me and as wide as the boat.

“When it’s wet it’s pretty heavy, but I would guess that it weighs, oh wet, I would say 8000 pounds or something like that,” says Peeler.

The Sitkan has fished in the Sac Roe Herring Fishery with his family for over two decades, and the Defiant hasn’t missed the fishery since it was built 42 years ago. It’s one of around 20 vessels participating this year. And it’s an unusual time in its history.

The fishery didn’t open last year or the year before, largely because fish have been too young and small for their eggs to be marketable abroad. But this year, the state is predicting a record-breaking biomass, which they say should be closer to marketable size.

Matt Kinney runs the F/V Hukilau. He says the state’s forecast lines up with what he’s seeing out on the water– very large schools of fish, some in deep waters, 50 to 60 fathoms below the surface, made visible with sounding and sonar equipment.

“We’re doing our best as fishermen to document and take pictures and try to show the public what’s out there. Because unlike the other species we fish, if you weren’t out there looking at them through electronics, you wouldn’t know that they’re there,” Kinney says.

The large anticipated biomass has led state biologists to set a ‘guideline harvest level” or GHL of over 33,000 tons of herring. Peeler says the fleet likely won’t catch that much. He says the GHL isn’t the same as a “quota,” and they don’t have the processing capacity to reach that mark.

“It takes freezers to freeze these things. And there is only a window of six to seven days a week–ten days if we’re lucky–that the herring are marketable, that the roe reaches the quality that they are,” he says. “It’s not that we can’t fish them and we can’t catch them and they’re not there,” he continues. “We’re not going to harvest something that’s not marketable.”

Peeler says this year, seiners are working together a little more closely. Though state biologists consider the fishery competitive, groups of fishermen are partnering with specific processors to harvest what they need.

“Is it a co-op in the word that we’ve used co-op before in this fishery? No. Are the fishermen working together to do this as efficiently as possible? Yes,” he says. “So we’re not going to see a lot of the YouTube video highlights,” he laughs, “but we’re still out there to catch what our companies need.”

Cooperative or competitive, no herring fishery for two years has been a huge strain on the fleet and Peeler and Kinney’s businesses.

“It’s forced me to change my business,” Peeler says. “Sure I do multiple fisheries in Southeast Alaska. But I bought into the Defiant 7 years ago…With that comes a big bill. Every fishery counts. I wouldn’t buy this boat just to fish salmon; I wouldn’t buy this boat just to fish herring. It’s all those things put together that makes a fishing business.”

“Permits can be anywhere, right now, from $190,000 to $250,000 dollars over the last six years. The payments don’t go away,” says Kinney. “Of course we love this fishery, and we’ve kind of based a big plan on it that it’s going to be here for a long time. It’s in our best interest to keep it going.”

Both Peeler and Kinney participate in other fisheries, and those fisheries have helped their businesses weather the off-years for herring. But only with the combination of several fisheries can most fishing businesses sustain themselves long-term. And he says the absence of a herring fishery doesn’t just affect the fleet’s bottom line– it has ripple effects throughout economies in coastal Alaska.

State management of the herring fishery has been the subject of ongoing litigation in the courts for two years now, with the Sitka Tribe arguing that subsistence harvests of herring roe are not being properly addressed. Both Kinney and Peeler say they want the stocks to survive and subsistence harvesters to meet their needs. But they also want the fishery to continue– the permits and the equipment are meant to be lasting, not temporary.

“Matt’s a little younger than me and we have, you know, 20 to 30 more years of this ahead of us, and our boats, our gear, our permits and all that stuff is made to go on,” Peeler says. “It’s not made to be here for once or twice, and talk about our big catch. We want these biomasses of herring or salmon or black cod or whatever we’re fishing to keep going.”

Kinney says that’s the biggest misconception about seiners. That they’re not concerned about the longevity of the herring. He says they do care, they just trust that the state is regulating the fishery responsibly.

“People just feel like, we have one thing on the brain, and that’s harvesting, harvesting, harvesting, and that’s just not the case,” he says.

“We’re harvesting what we think the stock can handle. And all that is set by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, you know, they put those quotas out there to harvest what the fishery can handle,” he continues. “They’re not affiliated with processors or fishermen. And it feels like people are undermining science, which is truly the last thing that we have.”

And biology will determine when the herring fishery ends as well. Regardless of how much of this year’s record guideline harvest level of 33,000 tons is landed over the next few days, once the herring begin to spawn along the coastline of Sitka Sound, it’s game over, even for this year’s small-but-determined herring seine fleet.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series sharing different perspectives on the commercial herring fishery.

Read next